Top electoral authority stopped announcing new results without explanation, leading to fears of manipulation of votes

Protests have broken out across Bolivia after the countrys electoral authorities said that president Evo Morales was close to winning an outright victory in his bid for a historic fourth term in office.

The countrys electoral body abruptly stopped releasing election returns late on Sunday, prompting opponents to suggest that officials were trying to help Morales avoid a runoff vote.

At that point Morales had a lead of 45.3% to 38.2% over the second-place candidate, former president Carlos Mesa. Late on Monday, the body renewed its count and said that with 95% of votes counted, Morales led 46.41% to Mesas 37.06%.

Under Bolivian law, Morales would need a 10-percentage point advantage over Mesa to avoid a second round in December. The official final count is not due for seven days.

In a statement the Organisation of American States (OAS) expressed its deep concern and surprise at the drastic and hard-to-explain change in the trend of the preliminary results revealed after the closing of the polls and urged for calm.

Opposition groups have not heeded that call. Mesa, who had warned that the vote could be manipulated to avoid a runoff, called on Bolivians to conduct a battle in defense of the vote.

Police opened fire with tear gas as protesters clashed with government supporters outside local offices of the electoral tribunal in the capital La Paz, and the cities of Oruro, Potos and Cochabamba.

Supporters of the Bolivian opposition candidate Carlos Mesa of Comunidad Ciudadana party burn ballots during a protest in La Paz Photograph: Martin Alipaz/EPA

In Sucre the offices were set on fire as videos appeared to show police units abandoning their posts. In Camiri, the centre of Bolivias lucrative gas industry, videos showed protestors attacking the offices of the national oil company.

In Santa Cruz, opposition figures called for an indefinite country-wide strike starting tomorrow while supporters chanted no tenemos miedo, carajo! (We arent scared, dammit!).

Stoking the protestors anger were videos shared widely on social media which purportedly showed highly irregular electoral processes, including boxes of ballot papers lying abandoned in a La Paz street and piled high in a warehouse in Potos.

The interior minister, Carlos Romero, accused the opposition of trying to create trouble, warning that they have to take care of the violence theyre generating.

Rodrigo Riaza, a research analyst for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said: If Morales wins outright in the first round, the opposition will double down on their claims of fraud, which they have built up throughout the campaign.

The US acting assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Michael Kozak, tweeted: The U.S. rejects the Electoral Tribunals attempts to subvert #Bolivias democracy by delaying the vote count & taking actions that undermine the credibility of Bolivias elections.

Mondays clashes came amid fresh street violence in neighbouring Chile, and after mass protests in Ecuador and Haiti.

The region is convulsing. In Bolivia so far there have been tensions but we could go from tension to convulsion if Morales tries to force a victory in the first round, said Bolivian political analyst Franklin Pareja.

Being forced into a runoff would be a sharp blow to Morales, whose political success has been impressive and who seemed confident of a first-round win, said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based thinktank.

Moraless failure to achieve a first-round victory reflects growing concern about a slowing economy, corruption scandals and his determination to pursue a fourth term in defiance of a national referendum and the Bolivian constitution. Many Bolivians are simply weary. If re-elected, Evo will be in office nearly two decades.

Bolivia under Morales has remained a rare example of stability and growth. The economy has grown by an annual average of about 4.5%, well above the regional average, and the International Monetary Fund predicts it will grow at 4% this year.

But Morales has also faced growing dissatisfaction, especially over his refusal to accept a referendum on limiting presidential terms.



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